Wendy Lesser

  • culture April 20, 2017

    The Life and Death of Louis Kahn

    It was not just the suddenness of his death that made it hard to realize Louis Kahn was gone, Something about the way he disappeared from the world—irregularly, mysteriously, with that strange two-day gap when nobody he knew could find him—left many people unable to take in the facts of his death. For the California relatives, who learned about Lou’s death through a series of relayed phone calls, there was a persistent confusion about where and how he had died.

    It was not just the suddenness of his death that made it hard to realize Louis Kahn was gone. Something about the way he disappeared from the world—irregularly, mysteriously, with that strange two-day gap when nobody he knew could find him—left many people unable to take in the facts of his death.

    For the California relatives, who learned about Lou’s death through a series of relayed phone calls, there was a persistent confusion about where and how he had died. Decades later, Kahn’s niece, nephew, grandnephew, and two grandnieces all thought he had suffered a heart attack on the way back from

  • Portrait of Evil

    I’m not sure Roberto Bolaño would have lent himself comfortably to assigning comparative degrees of evil, but if we just want to name a developed portrait of evil from the past twenty years, his narrator in By Night in Chile (2000) would certainly qualify. This character is a conservative priest, a pillar of the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, who is also, under a pseudonym, one of the most famous and influential literary critics of his day. He dines with the great and the near-great, travels through Europe to investigate falconry techniques among the priesthood, and otherwise engages with the

  • Appetite for Deconstruction

    Jeffrey Eugenides is used to situating himself between the sexes. He is not quite the author of The Portrait of a Lady in this regard (Elizabeth Hardwick, when asked once to name her favorite American female novelist, wittily answered, “Henry James”), but then who is? Eugenides is certainly more interested in the sexual act itself than James ever was. Like John Updike, but with significantly more emotional content, he is curious about the mechanics entailed in the joining of bodies, the physical sensations that attach to the act of love. Above all, he seeks to render the experience—whether of

  • Female Trouble

    For the past quarter century or so, Deborah Eisenberg has been writing such perfect, satisfying, yet un-expectedly disturbing short stories that you would have had to be out of your mind to ask her for a novel. It’s been quite clear from the work she has already given us that she’s capable of saying everything that needs to be said in discrete units of six thousand words or less. And yet it now turns out that when you put all four of her story collections into a single chronologically ordered volume, something emerges that, while not quite a novel, has certain novelistic qualities—including,

  • Private Tudors

    Hilary Mantel is the finest underappreciated writer working in Britain. While her better-known contemporaries (Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan—make your own list) garner fame and fortune, she quietly produces one excellent novel after another. Each is different: They range from a portrait of a sheltered twentieth-century woman misreading a Muslim culture (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street [1988]) to a hilariously dark send- up of the psychic profession in all its guises (Beyond Black [2005]) to the best novel I have ever read about the French Revolution (A Place of Greater

  • Southern Discomfort

    Even then, it was obvious she was a genius,” said Miss Katherine Scott, Flannery O’Connor’s freshman-composition teacher, speaking to a reporter many years later about her most famous student—“warped, but a genius all the same.” The teacher no doubt focused on the warped part when the seventeen-year-old Catholic girl with the spectacles and the searing wit took her writing class at Milledgeville’s Georgia State College for Women in the summer of 1942; and it was the warped part she noticed some ten years later, when she read O’Connor’s first book, Wise Blood, and flung it across the room. “I

  • Head Cases

    In general, we don’t enjoy hearing about other people’s illnesses. If you say, “How are you?” to an acquaintance or a new friend, you want to get back a pat “Fine,” not some lengthy disquisition on the latest ache or pain. The exception to this rule occurs when both people have something wrong with them: In that case, a person is willing to listen for a while so that he can later work off his own complaints. (The late Gardner Botsford called such encounters among his old-men circle of friends “organ recitals.”)

    Reading is a different matter, apparently. People seem to have a nearly unlimited

  • Fowl Lines

    People think of Robert Frost these days, if they think of him at all, as the kind of old-fashioned, well-behaved New England poet who could safely be chosen to read at a presidential inauguration—a chronicler of rural beauties, family values, and snowy trips to Grandmother’s house, much anthologized by educational authorities and often quoted by people who know little about poetry, but not really very good. So it may come as something of a surprise to run across a sentence by Randall Jarrell—possibly the twentieth century’s sharpest, most judgmental poet-critic—that reads, in its entirety:

  • Top Cat

    At the time of his premature death, in 1957, at the age of sixty, only a handful of people knew that Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa had written a novel. They included his wife, Licy, a Latvian-born psychoanalyst; his recently adopted heir, Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi; his cousin, Lucio Piccolo, a prizewinning, late-blooming poet; and a few other close friends and relatives.

    Most of Lampedusa’s intimate friends were in fact relatives of one sort or another—even Licy was the stepdaughter of one of his uncles. Whether this lack of interest in outsiders was due to inherent shyness, aristocratic hauteur,